Hey, did you need more emails? No? What about the kind that transport you to a peaceful place, give you some sound advice, or sometimes have cool photos of bugs? You know, newsletters. I’m not going to claim that you need more of those either—newsletters are so abundant and have lured so many writers to quit their staff jobs for buckets of money (or sometimes, the freedom to say truly stupid things) that they could now almost be considered a literary genre in themselves. But wait! The kinds of newsletters I’m talking about are different. They won’t clog your inbox with stressful takes and bloviating. Instead, they’ll float peacefully into what I hope is a specific folder you’ve reserved just for newsletters so you only have to open them when you want to. They’ll wait patiently until you need a little pick-me-up and then they’ll offer brief musings on the natural world, traveling, and gas station wildlife. And you can give your spam trigger finger a rest.
Pinch of Dirt
As a freelance journalist, Jessica McKenzie often covers issues like food security and the environment. Her newsletter is a sort of off-hours platform for related interests: hiking, gardening, appreciating nature. In Pinch of Dirt, McKenzie mostly shares meandering thoughts from her travels and reporting notebook, but she’s also an avid reader and includes links that help readers think through the changing politics of being a recreationist. McKenzie considers topics such as how to grapple with climate change as an outdoors lover, or her discomfort with misanthropic coverage of overcrowding at parks. Her tips on urban hiking in New York City are handy, too.
Letters from a Stranger
Travel writer, photographer, and podcaster Nneka Julia Odum has no shortage of platforms to share her thoughts, but Letters from a Stranger feels more intimate than her other work, like dispatches sent just before hopping on a plane or before the luggage is unpacked. She started the newsletter as the continuation of a project in which she sent handwritten letters responding to questions from her nearly 70,000 Instagram followers for 100 days; now she uses it to occasionally answer more questions and foster a sense of community among her readers. But she also elaborates on her traveling life, writing about subjects like talking to strangers in airports and maintaining a sense of spontaneity on trips. In similar fashion, the rest of her notes are friendly and replete with pep talks and life advice.
In some ways, Shiny Objects uses the newsletter format in exactly the way it was intended: quick life updates for anyone who cares, from the road. Dana Pica (trail name: Magpie) is a regular thru-hiker and has used her newsletter to send section-by-section dispatches from her trips, including the Arizona Trail, the Great Divide Trail, the Pacific Northwest Trail, and the North Country Trail. One quick note sent after a couple of weeks without a post leads with, “I’m not dead!” The extremely detailed letters (down to the chicken sandwiches on jalapeño-cheddar bread provided by trail angels) might be a nostalgia trip for fellow thru-hikers or a helpful rundown of exactly what a long hike looks like for the uninitiated. For the latter, Pica provides uncondescending explanations at every turn, including glossaries of thru-hiking terms and a giant gear breakdown called, “Why’d you bring that?”
Entering the Lung
Neko Case is better known for her music, including her work as part of The New Pornographers, case/lang/veirs, and as a solo artist who often incorporates natural motifs like swans, ferrets, and killer whales into her lyrics. No surprise that her newsletter, Entering the Lung, isn’t a vanity project but a thoughtful reflection on her time in the outdoors. She often tries to write beyond the obvious narratives that surface when admiring nature—“I work hard to make sure I don’t romanticize such encounters,” she says of seeing a lizard in New Mexico, before reflecting on colonialism and the inner lives of reptiles. Case is a wry and observant writer who vividly describes seeing owls and bats alongside the concrete dinosaurs of Sinclair gas stations in one letter and considers hopefulness in the face of climate change in the next.
In her books and in publications like the Telegraph, editor and writer Alice Vincent gives pragmatic tips on gardening and plant cultivation. But her newsletter Noughticulture, which she’s sent since 2016, is more poetic, looking closely at natural features that fascinate her—seaweed, sunsets, storms. She also applies her observant writing style to the practicalities of daily life (there are many updates from her own garden) and broader meditations on climate change. Writing about how snow is becoming a more infrequent sight in London thanks to global warming, she says, “I see the hoar frost of the countryside through little squares on my phone, the crisp glitter that turns an ivy leaf into a marvel, and sometimes think about the icicles that used to hang off the low roof of my childhood home. But here, the only thing that gets properly frozen is the car windscreen.”
Don’t Save Anything
Writer Neil Shea is often on assignment for National Geographic, so his newsletter, Don’t Save Anything, offers a window into all parts of the world. Most recently, he’s been in Arctic locales, documenting trips like hunting with members of the Tłı̨chǫ Nation in Canada’s Northwest territories. You’ll come for the photos and behind-the-scenes stories from expeditions, but you’ll stay for the profiles of interesting people he’s met while reporting and the bigger questions he explores around whose stories get told. At an old hunting site on Canada’s Ellesmere Island, he remembers, “My heart raced, the hair on my neck stood up. We could sense the depth of what we did not know yawning beneath our feet.” Later, remembering the effect the spot’s imagined past had on him, he’s careful not to let some romanticized memory carry him away: “there is a fine line here between imagination and colonial vanity,” he writes, and calls up some Arctic archaeologists to learn more about the site’s actual history.
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